Dan Owen recently got in touch with a few q’s about writing TV drama in the UK and I thought it might be useful to share the exchange on the blog.
1. US vs UK.
If you write a TV drama spec script for the UK, should you follow the template of US hour-long drama? They have 1 teaser and 5 acts, structured around their ad breaks. However, the UK has less ad breaks and (if it's on the BBC) don't have ANY!
I have heard many different opinions on this question. Some say treat the hour like a movie and split it into 3 acts, some say you should have a teaser with 4 acts, other say 5 acts.
So what would YOU say is the best way to go?
A: For the UK market, it's best to write an original spec script of your own idea and characters (whether it be feature or TV script) as this is what producers and script editors like to read in order to judge the writer's talents.
In the US, it is commonly accepted that writers should write a spec episode of the show they want to work on and if you do that, you better make sure that you write to the particular style and structure of the series (teaser, four acts or whatever).
An hour of US time is only 42 minutes while an hour of UK time is 50 mins, or sometimes 60 mins if it's on the BBC (depending or not whether they want to sell it internationally, then they'll make it 50 mins so other broadcasters can fit in adverts around the hour slot).
If you want to write a spec script of, say, Dr Who, then my advice would be to study the existing shows back to front. Denis at Dead Things on Sticks has terrific advice on writing spec scripts, including "listening" to the show, not watching it. I’ve lost the direct link to the articles but they’re there…. Anyway, if you do write an ep of Dr Who, make sure to follow the style and structure as much as you can but still sticking to your original voice and talents because ultimately that's what they want to see.
2. Page Counts
Continuing from the question above, what is the accepted page count for Acts in the UK? Many US TV scripts are 50-odd pages long in total - spread in chunks of 10-15 pages per Act. Is that acceptable for the UK market? If not, how many pages per Act should you be aiming for?
A: About 15-20 pages sounds about right for each act. It varies from show to show. The West Wing for example runs to about 80-90 pages in total because it's so dialogue driven while other shows will be 40-50 pages that can be split into standard 10-15 mins segments. But it all depends on format too.
EastEnders and Doctors for example have specific formats that make their half hour duration run into 50/60 pages of script (Doctors has a standard ‘word count’ too: “a typical episode would consist of around 32-36 scenes - approximately 60 pages or approximately 6,800 words).
I have recently been reading some scripts for Lost. It's a great show and I was interested in how they wrote their scripts. I recommend you take a look, if you haven't already, because I found them to be really enjoyable reads - even having seen the episodes already!
However... the Lost scripts completely break many "rules" I've had drummed into me about writing screenplays. Basically, they describe character's thoughts all the time and generally lead the actors and director by the hand with lots of camera directions and spell out the subtext. They even underline and capitalize stuff. A LOT!
Now, I know giving camera/actor directions like this IS acceptable when writing for TV in the US -- because writers have all the power, etc -- but should a UK spec script follow the same rules?
Personally, I know people say camera directions and suchlike distance
readers from scripts... but I actually find them more enjoyable and easier to totally enter the writers' imagination and visualize the events they want to see onscreen. Maybe I have a lazy directing side to my personality!
Anyway, it just strikes me that other TV scripts read very dry and bland when compared to the Lost scripts. The capitals and underlining also break the the "mundaneness" of a script, imo. I subconsciously devour pages because I can see in my peripheral vision that something REALLY EXCITING is going to happen because the capitals are waiting below!! ;-)
So, when writing a UK TV drama spec script... should you forget the
camera/actor directions and just write them as you would a conventional film script?
A: I think it's fairly impossible to write a script without writing what a character is thinking at some stage, the thing is not to over do it or make it feel over-literary.
Underline or capitals don't bother me when I'm reading a script but if they're overdone, then it's a turn-off. "Lost" does it well because ultimately, they're telling a riveting story and when that happens, format doesn't matter squat.
You've also got knowledge of the show and the characters, so you're reading the script with some appreciation already attached. Spec scripts don't have this luxury so my advice is feel free to use characters' thoughts and underlining, capitalising and even camera angles but make sure that they're inherent to the story, i.e. the script could not possibly be told in any other way in a dramatic and entertaining sense, and the reader won't even notice that the so called 'rules' being broken.